Eagles- Capped Bust Eagle, Small Eagle, 1795-1797

The ten-dollar gold piece was the highest denomination coin authorized by the Mint Act of 1792, one of three gold coins approved by Congress in that document. America’s new coinage system was based on the decimal system, a scheme promoted both by Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. The anchor of the system was the silver dollar, which was intended to circulate at the same value as the common and better known Spanish dollar, also known as the piece of eight or eight real coin. America’s ten dollar piece was called the eagle, after the national symbol that appeared on the reverse of the coin, and fractional gold coins were, naturally, the half eagle for the five dollar coin, and the quarter eagle for the two and a half dollar coin. The eagle was meant to be the nation’s primary gold coin for international trade, but bankers and others involved in those endeavors favored the half eagle, which more closely matched the size of the dominant gold coins of other nations.

Photos used with permission and courtesy of Heritage Auction Galleries

The denomination also apparently did not favor the eagle’s use; it was too small for large trade dealings but too large for smaller transactions. Few were seen in circulation domestically because the face value represented approximately a week’s wages for the average worker. Ultimately the question of circulation became moot, because when the price of gold rose with the uncertainty surrounding the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, most U.S. gold coins were either hoarded or melted as bullion. For one ounce of gold, traders could get 16 or more ounces of foreign silver, but only fifteen ounces of silver in this country. The cycle of buying foreign silver with an ounce of U.S. gold, then using most of that silver (but not all; hence the profit motive) to procure another ounce of U.S. gold, which was used to get more foreign silver, continued until gold coins virtually disappeared from circulation. The eagles that survived are often in relatively high grade for coins over two centuries old, indicating that those escaping melting as bullion were likely set aside for savings or as keepsakes.

The obverse displays a right-facing Liberty wearing a soft cap, with long flowing hair streaming down the back and curling from under the cap at the front. An incongruous sweep of hair is wrapped from the back of the head around the cap, giving an impression that may account for the Turban Head name often attached to the type. The date is at the bottom and the word LIBERTY more or less at the top, generally to the right of Liberty’s cap. The coin is rimmed with dentils, inside of which are either fifteen stars (1795 issues) or sixteen stars (1796 and 1797 issues). The 1795 coins have ten stars to the left of Liberty and five to the right. The stars are split eight left and eight right on 1796 eagles, and 12 left and four right on 1797 Small Eagle eagles.

The reverse displays a slender right-facing standing eagle, with wings outstretched. The eagle is resting on a palm leaf and holds in its beak an upright small wreath, a motif thought to have been copied from an old cameo. Inside the dentilled rim UNITED STATES OF AMERICA forms nearly a complete circle, and UNITED and AMERICA are intersected by the tips of the eagle’s wings. All coins were minted at Philadelphia and display neither mintmark nor denomination; the value of the eagle was determined by the gold content.

Census and population reports show a few hundred Capped Bust Eagle, Small Eagle coins, with the majority being 1795 issues. A couple of prooflike circulation strikes have been identified, but no proofs are known for the three-year type. All pieces are expensive, even at low grades; anything finer than VF is extremely expensive, with prices approaching one million dollars for Gem and finer examples. The 1795 9 Leaves is the most expensive issue of the type, and none of that variety have been certified finer than Select Uncirculated.


Designer: Robert Scot
Circulation Mintage: high 5,583 (1795), low 3,615 (1797)
Proof Mintage:none known
Denomintion: $10.00 Eagle
Diameter: ±33 mm, reeded edge
Metal content: 91.67% gold, 8.33% copper
Weight: ±17.5 grams
Varieties:A few known, including 1795 13 Leaves Below Eagle and 9 Leaves Below Eagle, and other minor varieties; sixteen-star 1796, with 8 stars on each side of Liberty; and sixteen-star 1797, with twelve stars to the left and 4 to the right.

Additional Resources :

CoinFacts: www.coinfacts.com
Coin Encyclopedia: www.ngccoin.com
Encyclopedia of U.S. Gold Coins: 1795-1933. Ron Guth and Jeff Garrett. Whitman Publishing.
Early U.S. Gold Coin Varieties. John W. Dannreuther and Harry W. Bass Jr. Whitman Publishing.
The Official Red Book: A Guide Book of United States Coins. R.S Yeoman (author), Kenneth Bressett (editor). Whitman Publishing.
A Guide Book of United States Type Coins. Q. David Bowers. Whitman Publishing.
United States Coinage: A Study by Type. Ron Guth and Jeff Garrett. Whitman Publishing.
The Experts Guide to Collecting & Investing in Rare Coins. Q. David Bowers. Whitman Publishing.
The U.S. Mint and Coinage. Don Taxay. Arco Publishing
Walter Breen’s Encyclopedia of U.S. Coins. Walter Breen. Doubleday.

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